Monday, August 18, 2014

RED: What do you see?

Red will always be special to me because it is the first play I ever saw. It was so well-reviewed and I love art and have always liked Rothko.

I remember sitting in the mezzanine instead of in the orchestra because tickets were so expensive. But that worked out - I got a glorious view of the set, Rothko's workshop. The whole play took place in one room, but the dialogue was so intense and riveting. I kept trying to mentally note lines of the play, so many thoughts and remarks about the meaning of art and finding purpose and struggling with selling out. It was a very dorky art trip, with Rothko's commentary on an important time in the American art scene, the movement from impressionism to abstract expressionism to pop art. Rothko's generation had been detested by the more classical painters, but he in turn despised Warhol & co. He verbally abuses and bullies Ken, an aspiring painter and his assistant who certainly identifies with the new blood, Rothko's sparring partner for the entire show.

When I got to travel to London two years later I couldn't wait to get to the Tate and sit for a moment in front of Rothko's Seagram murals, the contentious set of portraits that are the focus of the play. The lights are dimmer in the room where they're displayed, prbabbly set to the brightness (or dimness) Rothko obsessed about.

When I heard that they were doing a Manila production of the play I was excited to possibly see it again, but also a little afraid. You never know what liberties a new creative team will take, or what a new cast will bring (or not) to a piece of work. And this is such a tough one to pull off.

I didn't get to see their original run, or on one of the many succeeding runs they had soon after. I finally got to catch it on a much later run this year.

The performance was going to be held at the CCP's Little Theater. We walked in and found we could sit right on stage level, seats arranged on the three sides of the stage. Rothko's workshop was all set up, pieces hanging around the theater, benches, tables, chairs, scattered around.

Rothko walked in and we were drawn into his room. I felt like we never left until the very end of the show.

The same questions were asked and this time, I was ready! I had a little notepad and a pen to jot down the lines and parts that I wanted to remember. (I ended up with mostly illegible scribbles.) But all the important questions were asked, the same fears about trying to create something new and fear of losing respect. Bart Guingona's fingers were covered in paint, even red tint under his fingernails. Joaquin put together a blank canvas, almost from scratch. They had a working sink on stage, and a gritty pink-red floor. They had pots of red pigment on the table and bottles of alcohol poured whiskey from. They mixed paint live, all fascinating art workshop stuff as they probed, discussed and debated.

Red asks important questions that every artist and creative person probably faces. It's all talk, which could get boring if not delivered compellingly. The actors need to keep the audience involved in what is essentially a nintey-minute conversation. Unlike other shows that are require performers to bring their whole hearts, I think this one is about intention. From set and stage to delivery and interaction, I was completely enthralled in the whole production.

My favorite scene is when, in a fit of artistic passion, Rothko and Ken paint a whole canvas red. No more dialogue, just movement.

(P.S. I put the video because it shows that exact scene, but for the record I think this is a terrible trailer especially given that it was such an amazing production! I think they could use some marketing skills... Then the show might have been more packed! It was so sad, I'd say only 30% of the theater was filled when I watched.)

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